An interview with Broadway legend Patti LuPone ahead of her Lied Center performance
Originally, Patti LuPone was slated to perform her popular, long-running concert “Coulda, Woulda, Shoulda” for Thursday’s gig at the Lied Center, which as of press time was still advertising the show under that name.
But the Broadway star, she of “Evita,” “Gypsy” and the myriad showbiz honors, was quick to correct me — good naturedly, it should be said — during a phone interview last week on the eve of her 67th birthday.
“Don’t Monkey with Broadway” is the name of her new show, which revisits classics by Rodgers & Hart, Stephen Sondheim, Leonard Bernstein and Irving Berlin, among others that ignited her Broadway dreams as a young girl growing up in Long Island.
Enjoy the show, by all means, but don’t “monkey around” with your cellphone, or you might find it snatched away by LuPone herself, and not without a good lecturing. (Yes, that has actually happened on several occasions, and has since become the stuff of legend.)
I heard it’s your birthday tomorrow. Any fun plans?
Well, I’m with one of my oldest friends in the world in Seattle, where we’re performing tomorrow. I’ll be singing and I’m here in Seattle. That’s what I have planned.
How’s Seattle right now?
It’s beautiful. The sun is shining. It’s warm. I think it’s global warming at its best (laughs).
So, how did you go about curating the songs in the new show?
Well, I got sick of singing the old ones, quite frankly (laughs). We’ve done “Coulda, Woulda, Shoulda” for a very long time, and I was sick of these songs. So we thought, “OK, how do we update the show without really changing the premise, which is basically singing Broadway show tunes?” And so I went back to my very beginning history of involvement in musical theater. It really goes all the way back to when I was quite young and discovered Broadway musicals.
I’d read somewhere that your first production of “Gypsy,” one of the shows that later made you famous and earned you a Tony, didn’t go so well. Something about a fiasco with a live lamb onstage?
I was part of a group called the Patio Players, and this was on Long Island. There were kids in my high school obsessed with music. What they did in school was not enough; they had to continue their obsession in the summertime. So they formed a little group called the Patio Players and they performed great big Broadway musicals on Cathy Sheldon’s patio. The second production I did with the Patio Players was “Gypsy,” and Cathy Sheldon was my Rose and I played the lead, Gypsy. We went to some rich estate, someplace out on Long Island, and they had sheep grazing on the way up the driveway to the mansion. We went up and we talked to the caretaker and they said, “Yes, of course you can have a lamb when they’re born.” Well, the lambs were born in the spring and we were doing this (the show) in the summer, and the lamb was a sheep by the time we got him (laughs). He was great in dress rehearsal under the huge spotlight, with me singing “Little Lamb” to this sheep. Come opening night, I sang “Little lamb, little lamb,” and it went off. Well, the sheep just got very nervous and started stomping all over the stage, and there was nothing I could do except let him go, and he ended up in the boy’s room. They caught him in the boy’s room, which was tiled, and this thing was bah-ing all the way through the show in the boy’s room. It was a riot. We loved it. We were kids — we didn’t care.
So, did you glean any lessons on show business from that incident?
Oh, we gleaned lots of lessons on show business all through junior high and high school because we had great teachers. They had a lot to say — not just about what might happen in a show, but they gave us really heady lessons about commitment and doing the best you can. I’m telling you, I just sang with the (LuPone’s alma mater) Northport High School choir last night in the show that we’re calling “Don’t Monkey With Broadway,” and the kids were unbelievable. These kids could hold pitch, they enunciated their words, they were a professional choir, and they’re high school kids. It was just very moving to see these kids who could be doing anything else, and they chose to do this. They chose to present themselves this way and they chose to be good at it. That’s pretty impressive in today’s world. Not a cellphone in sight, not a distraction in sight. Not that they didn’t get on their cellphones when they came off stage, but they were disciplined. They were fantastic. I started to weep, I really did, just thinking that, “Wow, this exists. This really exists.”
Right, and that kind of professionalism is something we don’t normally associate with Millennials. It makes me think of your cameo on “Girls,” where Lena Dunham’s character is interviewing you and picks up her phone mid-interview to answer a call from her boyfriend, which just made me cringe, by the way. Was that scene a sort of tongue-in-cheek nod to your no-nonsense attitude about cellphones in theaters?
No, not with “Girls.” That’s how people interview now. I’m sure that’s what you’re doing! I’m not against phones. I have a phone; I use a phone. It depends on how you use that phone. You don’t pull it out at the distraction of the audience. You don’t pull it out when you’re supposed to be involved in anything, like a piece of art in a museum or a concert or a ballet. That’s the big question to me — why did you spend the money to get there when you can’t get away from your phone? I don’t know what’s going on. It’s so alienating, you know what I mean? We live in a society now where we don’t look at each other and we don’t talk to each other. We text, or we just don’t do anything. It bothers me so much more in concerts than it does in theatrical events, because you’re trying to cast a spell for an audience and it’s difficult to cast that spell if the audience is distracted in any way, not just by phone. It breaks the spell.
Speaking of casting a spell, I remember watching an interview with you on TV a few years back where you said people still approached you assuming that you were your character from “Evita.”
No, no, they remember me now as Eva Peron, but back then, you know…
Where do you think that phenomenon comes from? Of people not being able to disassociate you as an actor from the character you play?
Well, it doesn’t go that far. They don’t talk to me as if I am Evita. If they have been affected that deeply by the production, then that’s great. I mean, people still come up to me today and say that “Evita” was a very seminal moment in their life, that production.
“Evita” is partly about fame, about pursuing fame and what happens when you get it. Did you ever have a moment when you realized you were famous?
Well, no, because it was controversial fame. There were a lot of people, in the theater community and just period, who were not happy that a fascist dictator’s wife cozied up with the Nazi regime, was being glorified. So, that’s infamy — it’s not fame. I had Peronistas and anti-Peronistas in my dressing room — people from Argentina that had escaped the Peron regime or that had just come to America, anti and pro, saying, “You had her to a T.” And they weren’t seeing me — they were seeing Evita Peron. It was a very, very controversial fame. It wasn’t celebrated as much as it was controversial.
You’re very close friends with your “Evita” co-star Mandy Patinkin, who attended KU here in Lawrence before matriculating to Juilliard. Do you guys have any plans to work together again?
I hope so. We have a show that we dropped because we’d been doing it a long time and we have to come up with a new one. But yeah, it’s such a joy to be on stage with him, anytime I can be. He was my rock in “Evita” and he’s one of my dearest friends in life.
Do you have any roles on your bucket list at this point, that you haven’t played yet but would like to?
No. I never think that way because I never get the roles I want to play, you know what I mean? I audition for them and I don’t get them, so there’s no reason to think that way. What’s exciting to me about my career is the surprise of it. I never know what’s coming next.